Chicken Licken: Reflections on Large Group Processes, Online Spaces and Destructive Group Leaders.
Updated: May 3
A while ago I moved to live on a smallholding where we have, at different stages, kept chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl. Whilst we had chickens when I was younger, it was in an urban setting and I spent very little time with them and so, this way of life has felt very new to me. If I am honest I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with chickens - I can get fascinated by their behaviour but I also reach a state of panic if I get too physically close. I know how irrational this is, but I can’t quite control my response. I am a work in progress. As I creep towards a better relationship with my chickens, what has been quite shocking is my change in understanding of chickens and birds in general. Their instincts of imprinting, of home to roost and maintaining territory are astonishing to witness. Also, chickens are merciless when it comes to enforcing a strong social structure; they are cannibalistic by nature and can and will kill another bird with their relentless henpecking. The social structure in flocks whilst stable is permanently in motion - as animals grow older, new more powerful chickens grow into their prime, any can get sick and or just find new political allies.
Something else I have now rather disturbingly witnessed is that chickens, if decapitated, have the reaction that their bodies keep moving for a short time afterwards. This is where we get the phrase behaving ‘like a headless chicken’ and it means acting in a panic-stricken and unthinking manner. A rather bizarre story I heard is the curious tale of Mike the Headless Chicken (April 20, 1945 – March 17, 1947). Mike was a male Wyandotte chicken that lived for 18 months after his head had been cut off!
Late last year, I asked people if they had any suggestions for stories to think about. It was suggested that Chicken Licken might be interesting to explore, and given my new found ambition to care for chickens, thought this was a wonderful idea.
Chicken Licken is the American name for the Scottish folk tale of Henny Penny, sometimes also called Chicken Little. It is a European folk tale with a moral in the form of a cumulative tale about a chicken who believes that the world is coming to an end. Similar stories go back more than 25 centuries. Other versions of this story that makes light and explores mass hysteria include: The Hares and the Frogs (Aesop's Fables); The Timid Hare and the Flight of the Beasts (India, The Jataka Tales); Plop! (Tibet); The Cock and the Hen That Went to Dovrefjell (Norway, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe); Brother Rabbit Takes Some Exercise (African-American, Joel Chandler Harris).
There are several European versions of the story, of which the best-known concerns a chicken that believes the sky is falling when a pea falls on its head.
A hen was picking at a stack of pea-straw when a pea fell on her head, and she thought the sky was falling. And she thought she would go and tell the king about it. And she went, and went, and went, and she met a cock. And he said, "Where are you going this day, Henny-Penny?" And she says, "I'm going to tell the king the sky is falling."
And he says, "I'll go with you, Henny-Penny." And they went, and they went, and they went.
And they met a duck. And the duck says, "Where are you going this day, Cocky-Locky, Henny-Penny?"
"We're going to tell the king the sky is falling." I'll go with you, Cocky-Locky, Henny-Penny."
"Then come along, Ducky-Daddles." And they went, and they went, and they went.
And they met a goose. And the goose says, "Where are you going this day, Ducky-Daddles, Cocky-Locky, Henny-Penny?"
"We're going to tell the king the sky is falling."
And he says, "I'll go with you, Ducky-Daddles, Cocky-Locky, Henny-Penny."
"Then come along, Goosie-Poosey," said they.
And they went, and they went, and they went, till they came to a wood, and there they met a fox.
And the fox says, "Where are you going this day, Goosie-Poosey, Ducky-Daddles, Cocky-Locky, Henny-Penny?"
"We're going to tell the king the sky is falling."
And he says, "Come along, and I'll show you the road, Goosie-Poosey, Ducky-Daddles, Cocky-Locky, Henny-Penny."
And they went, and they went, and they went, till they came to the fox's hole.
And he shoved them all in, and he and his young ones ate them all up, and they never got to tell the king the sky was falling.
In this story we see there are a number of different species of birds all coming together to form one larger group we could call the ‘bird’ group. I know from my own life chickens mix fairly well with other birds - geese, ducks and guinea fowl etc. But we have learnt that when you attempt to keep multiple types of birds in the flock, the impact of hierarchy becomes more complex. So, if you want to keep a harmonious flock with chickens and guinea fowl etc – learning how to establish a peaceful environment is important. Thinking about sufficient space, appropriate resources for different species, as well as individual factors such as age and health that might influence the pacing and timing of introducing new members. It’s a delicate business but necessary otherwise bloody chaos can ensue.
If I think about my knowledge of real chickens in the context of the story I can see there might be something about social order and hierarchy going on. So what happens when we slow down and think about this in the story?
We might think of the multiple species of birds as a large group identity. Professor Volkan (1998) a psychiatrist and group psychoanalyst, defined the important concept of “large-group identity” in terms of nation, ethnicity, race, religion, and politics: we are European, we are British, we are Muslim, we are Christians, we are LGBTQ+, we are socialists, we are conservatives, we are Arabs, we are Jews.
According to Volkan, large group identity develops from traditions such as shared foods, music, clothing/footwear, hair styles, dances, folktales, but most of all history — history that tells of both shared glories and shared injuries of a group. However, shared injuries (trauma) are much more influential than shared glories. Examples of such traumas are a defeat in war, the loss of land or prestige, the suffering from colonisation, or from a group's subjection to prejudice and hostility such as the suffering of pathologizing of homosexuality. The idea is that a group unconsciously uses the memory and narrative of that trauma as a marker of its identity and separateness from other groups.
One of the curious aspects of this tale is that Henny Penny does not seem to know what a pea is. The pea is found in pea straw. Pea straw is the crop residues from harvesting field peas. This dry product contains the stems and leaves left on the field and can be fed fresh or ensiled and is an excellent bedding source for chickens. Bedding being the place chickens go to sleep and lie unconsciously.
How can Henny Penny be so wrong about something so familiar and known? How is it that none of the other birds question this either? Not the male chicken - cocky locky, or the other species? In the real world it is unthinkable that a chicken would not know what a pea is and be able to resist pecking it and digesting it immediately. But if we slow down, we don’t actually know if the pea is not recognised, or if in the recognition something terrible was also remembered and so she sees it as a warning of a catastrophic event about to occur.
As mentioned in a previous blog: the pea might represent the seed of an idea, the beginning of something that holds vast potential for growth. It contains promise and potential for all that can develop should the individual now be open to go through a process of self-discovery. In this story the pea is an object that is in a familiar environment. Allowed to take root it could grow into something very substantial. Or used wisely it can be a source of nourishment. Its interpretation as a piece of sky falling in is therefore curious. How might someone imagine an everyday experience is deathly and cause for huge distress. Well maybe because it reminds them of something that has happened before? Something that led to the sky falling in.
English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott: ‘The catastrophe you fear will happen has already happened.’ But, added Winnicott, the catastrophe has been forgotten; and that is what is making us so ill and sick with worry. If the future is to get brighter, we will need to remember the catastrophe and locate it where it really belongs: safely but also poignantly and tragically in the past.
Another way of connecting to this terror connected to the pea - is to consider Henny Penny has forgotten it as an object. It then becomes a story about what happens when an animal is not sufficiently connected to or knowledgeable of its instinctual body, their physical environment as the relationship with the natural world is cut off. What happens when we lose our head? The phrase "The sky is falling!" features prominently in the story and has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that something terrible is imminent.
We increasingly live in a world that exploits how our psyches use images and groups to construct an internal existence. Most of us can now switch off from our surroundings to answer another email or interact with another tweet. And every platform, especially professional group spaces like psychology facebook groups or twitter ‘zones’, encourages a constant cosplay of the self — to project someone more confident, powerful, thoughtful, knowing, caring and observant than we really are.
This intense use of screens means many of us are now living in our heads. The images of our online friends and foes can be more potent than our offline selves. We might not maintain a practice of valuing offline relationships as meaningful in the same way, inevitably resulting in a social thinning and terror of embodied, face to face interactions. In our highly selected online groups we don’t have to deal with the ebb and flow of difference in real life community. Instead we become highly specialist in our niche online worlds. We become bean counters - of facts, with people demanding receipts should discrepancy be observed. Outrage is everywhere.
In this environment would we now recognise the naturalness, benign nature and nourishment of a pea if it hit us on the head? Would we be familiar enough with impact on the body in this way, to assimilate its meaning, so that we know what action is most appropriate. In a mind-body imbalance, it is easy to imagine we are only social constructs and that life is an algorithm. That all falling peas only lead to disaster.
When I think of online spaces I also inevitably think of activism - whoever controls the narrative controls the group. Activism is currently a professional buzzword and yet very few take time to think about what will happen if the henpecking works and the group actually acts on what they are saying. We just imagine the powerful (those who when a wound is shown we henpeck ferociously and with impunity) will ‘learn’ to know their new place and those new in power would never be so awful. But if the powerful bad go - where can we take our violence? Power structures are not static - they shift, and unless we keep track of this would people even recognise they are now in power and the influence they hold? As chickens teach us - less power is very different from having no power. Henny Penny believed she needed more power and so tried to go to the king to use theirs; This denial helped her to get all her community killed.
We have to remember, the pea did not randomly fall on Henny Penny’s head. She was pecking at pea straw. Was she looking for something? Did she ever want to eat it? What was she really hungry for? Was she even hungry? Maybe she was just bored? Henny Penny certainly is a story about the birds’ group needing to use their leader’s head for thinking, as opposed to taking time to understand their own.
According to Volkan, when a group's identity is threatened, after an attack or loss of power — it becomes imperative to reinforce it. Volkan uses the useful metaphor of a tent to describe group identity. When the tent has deteriorated people rally underneath its canvas; they rally around their leader, who acts like the pole of the tent stabilizing and maintaining the structure.
When a group’s overwhelming trauma is not mourned or worked through, it becomes part of a large group identity. It can be hard for members of that group to see past old wounds and as such they are vulnerable to manipulation by a destructive leader. Group members can become easily mobilised if they are told there is a repetition of past suffering. With an authoritarian leader, the group just needs to be told the sky is falling in and everyone will rally round. "Chosen trauma" is Volkan’s term for this mental image of history that is not sufficiently mourned and so it is chosen as a marker and is passed down through the generations.
In this sense the story then becomes about leadership style - and what happens when a group requires their leader to know the world better than they do themselves. When group members imagine our leader's gift from the group is to be knowing rather than known. This is the hallmark of an authoritarian leader. A sign we are engaged in seeking this type of leadership out, is when we believe leaders should be aspirational role models that can teach us to live better lives - that their symbolic role must be reduced to a concrete one - of leading by telling people what to do.
But in reality all a leader ever can really do is be one person that is known by many. A leader will never be able to see all and hear all. They will repeatedly get things wrong. Often drastically. Leaders that see themselves as educators, someone others should learn from, who have answers - only encourage a mindless devotion to their authority. To help - isn’t always that helpful and inevitably leads to an unthinking devotion and authoritarian style of care. What the leader says goes and all ‘thinking’ must pass through them to be signed off.
If a leader takes their responsibility of being known seriously - they will connect to the symbolic element of their role and the necessity to give the task of knowing back to the group members. For a leader to make minimal mistakes in their task of being known by many, a leader must expose their limits, their not knowing. And keeping the group task on encouraging better communication between group members, facilitating multiple understandings and allowing many voices to be heard. Thus supporting all group members to have a deeper connection to their embodied experience so that useful wisdom can be discerned and the group grow, survive and thrive more effectively.
It might also be helpful to take some time to think about the fox. When I first heard this story I thought the fox was the bad guy - killing those poor birds. But knowing more about the viciousness of birds and the shy nature of the fox, I feel a little differently. Foxes are predators. They are also highly determined ones. But they are only in touch with the realities of their survival in the way that the twittering birds in the story are not. The fox is an interesting symbol. It is both a predator but also an animal that was regularly hunted for sport and land management by humans. In the UK we now have laws banning fox hunting. Many have great sympathy for the plight of the fox. In some versions of the tale the fox is confident that the sky is not falling in because he has returned to the site described by Henny Penny and understands the mistake. He checks the evidence base and so knows better. In this telling the fox is really just opportunistic: the birds had socially constructed a group psyche that was disconnected from reality and in doing so they become easy targets for predation. In getting lost in the collective panic of imminent death, they create circumstances for that very thing to occur.
I am beginning to wonder if this is indeed a story for our time and if so what a mess!
Volkan, V. (1998). Bloodlines: From Ethnic Pride to Ethnic Terrorism. Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux.